Dec
08
2018
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Why you need a supercomputer to build a house

When the hell did building a house become so complicated?

Don’t let the folks on HGTV fool you. The process of building a home nowadays is incredibly painful. Just applying for the necessary permits can be a soul-crushing undertaking that’ll have you running around the city, filling out useless forms, and waiting in motionless lines under fluorescent lights at City Hall wondering whether you should have just moved back in with your parents.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com.

And to actually get approval for those permits, your future home will have to satisfy a set of conditions that is a factorial of complex and conflicting federal, state and city building codes, separate sets of fire and energy requirements, and quasi-legal construction standards set by various independent agencies.

It wasn’t always this hard – remember when you’d hear people say “my grandparents built this house with their bare hands?” These proliferating rules have been among the main causes of the rapidly rising cost of housing in America and other developed nations. The good news is that a new generation of startups is identifying and simplifying these thickets of rules, and the future of housing may be determined as much by machine learning as woodworking.

When directions become deterrents

Photo by Bill Oxford via Getty Images

Cities once solely created the building codes that dictate the requirements for almost every aspect of a building’s design, and they structured those guidelines based on local terrain, climates and risks. Over time, townships, states, federally-recognized organizations and independent groups that sprouted from the insurance industry further created their own “model” building codes.

The complexity starts here. The federal codes and independent agency standards are optional for states, who have their own codes which are optional for cities, who have their own codes that are often inconsistent with the state’s and are optional for individual townships. Thus, local building codes are these ever-changing and constantly-swelling mutant books made up of whichever aspects of these different codes local governments choose to mix together. For instance, New York City’s building code is made up of five sections, 76 chapters and 35 appendices, alongside a separate set of 67 updates (The 2014 edition is available as a book for $155, and it makes a great gift for someone you never want to talk to again).

In short: what a shit show.

Because of the hyper-localized and overlapping nature of building codes, a home in one location can be subject to a completely different set of requirements than one elsewhere. So it’s really freaking difficult to even understand what you’re allowed to build, the conditions you need to satisfy, and how to best meet those conditions.

There are certain levels of complexity in housing codes that are hard to avoid. The structural integrity of a home is dependent on everything from walls to erosion and wind-flow. There are countless types of material and technology used in buildings, all of which are constantly evolving.

Thus, each thousand-page codebook from the various federal, state, city, township and independent agencies – all dictating interconnecting, location and structure-dependent needs – lead to an incredibly expansive decision tree that requires an endless set of simulations to fully understand all the options you have to reach compliance, and their respective cost-effectiveness and efficiency.

So homebuilders are often forced to turn to costly consultants or settle on designs that satisfy code but aren’t cost-efficient. And if construction issues cause you to fall short of the outcomes you expected, you could face hefty fines, delays or gigantic cost overruns from redesigns and rebuilds. All these costs flow through the lifecycle of a building, ultimately impacting affordability and access for homeowners and renters.

Startups are helping people crack the code

Photo by Caiaimage/Rafal Rodzoch via Getty Images

Strap on your hard hat – there may be hope for your dream home after all.

The friction, inefficiencies, and pure agony caused by our increasingly convoluted building codes have given rise to a growing set of companies that are helping people make sense of the home-building process by incorporating regulations directly into their software.

Using machine learning, their platforms run advanced scenario-analysis around interweaving building codes and inter-dependent structural variables, allowing users to create compliant designs and regulatory-informed decisions without having to ever encounter the regulations themselves.

For example, the prefab housing startup Cover is helping people figure out what kind of backyard homes they can design and build on their properties based on local zoning and permitting regulations.

Some startups are trying to provide similar services to developers of larger scale buildings as well. Just this past week, I covered the seed round for a startup called Cove.Tool, which analyzes local building energy codes – based on location and project-level characteristics specified by the developer – and spits out the most cost-effective and energy-efficient resource mix that can be built to hit local energy requirements.

And startups aren’t just simplifying the regulatory pains of the housing process through building codes. Envelope is helping developers make sense of our equally tortuous zoning codes, while Cover and companies like Camino are helping steer home and business-owners through arduous and analog permitting processes.

Look, I’m not saying codes are bad. In fact, I think building codes are good and necessary – no one wants to live in a home that might cave in on itself the next time it snows. But I still can’t help but ask myself why the hell does it take AI to figure out how to build a house? Why do we have building codes that take a supercomputer to figure out?

Ultimately, it would probably help to have more standardized building codes that we actually clean-up from time-to-time. More regional standardization would greatly reduce the number of conditional branches that exist. And if there was one set of accepted overarching codes that could still set precise requirements for all components of a building, there would still only be one path of regulations to follow, greatly reducing the knowledge and analysis necessary to efficiently build a home.

But housing’s inherent ties to geography make standardization unlikely. Each region has different land conditions, climates, priorities and political motivations that cause governments to want their own set of rules.

Instead, governments seem to be fine with sidestepping the issues caused by hyper-regional building codes and leaving it up to startups to help people wade through the ridiculousness that paves the home-building process, in the same way Concur aids employee with infuriating corporate expensing policies.

For now, we can count on startups that are unlocking value and making housing more accessible, simpler and cheaper just by making the rules easier to understand. And maybe one day my grandkids can tell their friends how their grandpa built his house with his own supercomputer.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:

Apr
11
2018
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TravelPerk grabs $21M to make booking business trips suck less

TravelPerk, a Barcelona-based SaaS startup that’s built an end-to-end business travel platform, has closed a $21 million Series B round, led by Berlin-based Target Global and London’s Felix Capital. Earlier investors Spark Capital and Sunstone also participated in the round, alongside new investor Amplo.

When we last spoke to the startup back in June 2016 — as it was announcing a $7M Series A — it had just 20 customers. It’s now boasting more than 1,000, name-checking “high growth” companies such as Typeform, TransferWise, Outfittery, GetYourGuide, GoCardless, Hotjar, and CityJet among its clients, and touting revenue growth of 1,200% year-on-year.

Co-founder and CEO Avi Meir tells us the startup is “on pace” to generate $100M in GMV this year.

Meir’s founding idea, back in 2015, was to create a rewards program based around dynamic budgeting for business trips. But after conversations with potential customers about their pain-points, the team quickly pivoted to target a broader bundle of business travel booking problems.

The mission now can be summarized as trying to make the entire business travel journey suck less — from booking flights and hotels; to admin tools for managing policies; analytics; customer support; all conducted within what’s billed as a “consumer-like experience” to keep end-users happy. Essentially it’s offering end-to-end travel management for its target business users.

“Travel and finance managers were frustrated by how they currently manage travel and looked for an all in one tool that JUST WORKS without having to compare rates with Skyscanner, be redirected to different websites, write 20 emails back and forth with a travel agent to coordinate a simple trip for someone, and suffer bad user experience,” says Meir.

“We understood that in order to fix business travel there is no way around but diving into it head on and create the world’s best OTA (online travel agency), combined with the best in class admin tools  needed in order to manage the travel program and a consumer grade, smart user experience that travelers will love. So we became a full blown platform competing head on with the big TMCs (travel management companies) and the legacy corporate tools (Amex GBT, Concur, Egencia…) .”

He claims TravelPerk’s one-stop business trip shop now has the world’s largest bookable inventory (“all the travel agent inventory but also booking.com, Expedia, Skyscanner, Airbnb… practically any flight/hotel on the internet — only we have that”).

Target users at this stage are SMEs (up to 1,500 employees), with tech and consulting currently its strongest verticals, though Meir says it “really runs the gamut”. While the current focus is Europe, with its leading markets being the UK, Germany and Spain.

TravelPerk’s business model is freemium — and its pitch is it can save customers more than a fifth in annual business travel costs vs legacy corporate tools/travel agents thanks to the lack of commissions, free customer support etc.

But it also offers a premium tier with additional flexibility and perks — such as corporate hotel rates and a travel agent service for group bookings — for those customers who do want to pay to upgrade the experience.

On the competition front the main rivals are “old corporate travel agencies and TMC”, according to Meir, along with larger players such as Egencia (by Expedia) and Concur (SAP company).

“There are a few startups doing what we are doing in the U.S. like TripActions, NexTravel, as well as some smaller ones that are popping up but are in an earlier stage,” he notes.

“Since our first round… TravelPerk has been experiencing some incredible growth compared to any tech benchmark I know,” he adds. “We’ve found a stronger product market fit than we imagined and grew much faster than planned. It seems like everyone is unhappy with the way they are currently booking and managing business travel. Which makes this a $1.25 trillion market, ready for disruption.”

The Series B will be put towards scaling “fast”, with Meir arguing that TravelPerk has landed upon a “rare opportunity” to drive the market.

“Organic growth has been extremely fast and we have an immediate opportunity to scale the business fast, doing what we are doing right now at a bigger scale,” he says.

Commenting in a statement, Antoine Nussenbaum, partner at Felix Capital, also spies a major opportunity. “The corporate travel industry is one of the largest global markets yet to be disrupted online. At Felix Capital we have a high conviction about a new era of consumerization of enterprise software,” he says.

While Target Global general partner Shmuel Chafets describes TravelPerk as “very well positioned to be a market leader in the business travel space with a product that makes business travel as seamless and easy as personal travel”.

“We’re excited to support such an experienced and dedicated team that has a strong track record in the travel space,” he adds in a supporting statement. “TravelPerk is our first investment in Barcelona. We believe in a pan-European startup ecosystem and we look forward to seeing more opportunities in this emerging startup hub.”

Flush with fresh funding, the team’s next task is even more recruitment. “We’ll grow our teams all around with emphasis on engineering, operations and customer support. We’re also planning to expand, opening local offices in 4-5 new countries within the upcoming year and a half,” says Meir.

He notes the company has grown from 20 to 100 employees over the past 12 months already but adds that it will continue “hiring aggressively”.

Nov
29
2017
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Amazon is putting Alexa in the office

 The interface is evolving. What has long been dominated by screens of all shapes and sizes is now being encroached upon by the voice. And while many companies are building voice interfaces — Apple with Siri, Google with Assistant, and Microsoft with Cortana — none are quite as dominant as Amazon has been with Alexa. At the AWS reinvent conference, Amazon announced Alexa for… Read More

Jul
11
2017
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Lyft adds automatic ride receipt forwarding for business profiles

 Lyft now makes it easier for business travelers to expense the trips they take for work – rides taken under a Business Profile within the Lyft app can now be automatically forwarded to a number of expense management systems, including Expensify, Chrome River, Concur, Nexonia, Zoho, Abacus and Xpenditure. The auto forwarding basically just takes a step out of the process, but it’s a… Read More

Jul
27
2015
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HotelTonight And Lyft Can Now Be Expensed by 30M Employees Via Concur

biztraveler Concur, the travel management and expense toolset that was purchased about a year ago by SAP, announced that it is partnering with HotelTonight and Lyft to allow employees to easily expense the two services. Used by over 20,000 businesses and 30 million employees, the platform is an easy way for employees to book and get reimbursed for travel and other expenses. After linking your… Read More

Sep
18
2014
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SAP To Acquire Expense Software-Maker Concur For $129 Per Share

sap-concur Enterprise software company SAP just announced that has agreed to acquire Concur Technologies, maker of expense and travel management tools that are used by 23,000 businesses (including TechCrunch and its parent company AOL).
The deal is for $129 per share, which is 20 percent higher than Concur’s closing price on Sept. 17 (yesterday). That gives Concur an enterprise value of $8.3 billion. Read More

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